Introducing Azra Aksamija: Identity in Architecture

bridges vol. 24, December 2009 / News from the Network: Austrian Researchers Abroad

By Juliet M.  Beverly

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Aksamija Azra

In Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Azra Aksamija had a childhood free from worries, days filled with hiking or skiing, summer vacations in Croatia, and many friends of different backgrounds. "Sarajevo is very unique in that sense. The city has actually a long history of multicultural and peaceful coexistence," says Aksamija, an architect and Ph.D. candidate in the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT ).

Aksamija was 14 in 1992 when the Balkan war broke out. She recalls that, just before she left, groups of soldiers gathering on the hilltops of the city could be seen. "People kept saying, ‘Oh, it's just some military exercise.' Nobody wanted to believe that war was coming," says Aksamija.

At the time, Aksamija's mother worked as an anesthesiologist in Germany. Aksamija's father decided that the family should join their mother in Germany, starting school only a few days after she arrived in the new country. "I was so unhappy. I didn't speak a word of German. I was a young punk from Sarajevo transitioning from a city to a village in Germany, with no friends there," says Aksamija reflecting how desperately she wanted to return to Sarajevo where her life had once been.

But instead of returning to Sarajevo, the family had to leave Germany after just three months. This time they were headed to Austria, where her mother got a job as an anesthesiologist in Kapfenberg. Aksamija remembers that her transition to Kapfenberg wasn't easy either, but she found that the teachers at her high school were helpful in integrating her into the learning environment. With books, tapes, and a private tutor, it took Aksamija about a half a year to learn German. In 1995, Aksamija moved to Graz, Austria's second biggest city after Vienna, where she began studying architecture at the Technical University Graz (TU Graz ).

Graz was the place where Aksamija suddenly felt "at home" again and she flourished personally and professionally. While studying, she was also awarded Austrian citizenship in 1997. She graduated in 2001 from TU Graz with high honors and distinction. After graduation, Aksamija began looking for the direction to take her career.

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Azra, the Architect; Azra, the Artist

"I'm not just made for one thing, with one purpose. I want to do more," says Aksamija, explaining her ventures into the artistic nature of her architecture projects. "So I applied to the Graduate School of Architecture at Princeton, and that's where I began to further explore more artistic, conceptual, and social aspects of architecture."

 The Nomadic Mosque
 The Dirndl Dress Mosque

Aksamija was accepted into the Graduate School of Architecture at Princeton University, supported by a Princeton University Graduate Fellowship in 2002. For her master's thesis, she began to explore aspects of mosques and cultural identity, which inspired the project "Generic Mosque: A Contemporary Prayer Space ." Her project focused on the variability of the nature of a mosque - being able to change from religious to secular functions - as well as its assimilation to different architecture types in a given environment, based on Islamic geometric patterns :  a spatial expression of the Islamic doctrine Tawhid, unity in multiplicity, creating interaction between Muslim and non-Muslim cultures (click here to see Aksamija's Kunstmoschee (Art Mosque) project that combines sacred and secular spaces as well as Islamic geometric patterns).
From the generic mosque concept came other mosque concepts by Aksamija, such as "wearable mosques" or "wearable architecture." The generic and wearable mosques concepts of Aksamija were based on her experiences in Austria and in the US as a Muslim, facing religious and cultural differentiation. This made her reflect on her personal identity and her identity as a Muslim and how she could communicate this.

Through these wearable mosque designs, clothing can be transformed into prayer spaces, experimenting with the idea of mosque space in a contemporary context while respecting religious restrictions. For example, Aksamija's concept, The Nomadic Mosque, explores ways of settling spatial relationships between Islamic traditions and modernity in the US and Western Europe. The Nomadic Mosque prototype, designed using herself as the model, consists of loose-fitting dark pants and long tunic-length jacket with a hood that can completely cover the hair on her head, leaving only the facial features exposed. The jacket includes a rope of prayer beads and the hood - as well as several other areas of the garment - is covered in Islamic geometric patterns. To turn the garment into a prayer space a layer of cloth, still connected to the garment, can be untied and unfolded in front of the wearer to provide a prayer rug - as well as prayer rug space for one additional person - all without exposing the wearer.

From the concept of The Nomadic Mosque came Aksamija's idea of the Dirndlmoschee, or the Dirndl Dress Mosque. The Dirndl is a traditional Austrian dress that is still worn in some places in Austria, consisting of a blouse, bodice/corset, full skirt, and an apron. Dirndl Dress Mosque can be transformed into a prayer space for three people by untying the front apron that folds out in front of the dress. The traditional shoulder scarf of the dress can also be transformed into a veil to cover the hair. The belt of the dress carries a compass to help point you in the direction of Mecca for prayer. Additionally, a carabiner is attached from which hang prayer beads on ropes and Swiss Army knives: the crosses on the casing of the knife are re-symbolized as decoration. Both the carabiner and Swiss Army knives are common to have in the areas of St. Wolfgang and Strobl, Austria. "I wanted to show that Muslim women can feel at home in Austria by adjusting this design to their own needs. As was the case in history as Islam spread through different regions, Islamic societies evolved and progressed through assimilation of innovations," says Aksamija. "So the design shows the embracing of qualities of the ‘new space' and therefore can foster an acceptance of a Muslim ‘new comer' in society and bring about cultural enrichment."

Aksamija has performed demonstrations of how to use the wearable mosques at MIT and in the township of Strobl, Austria. Reactions from younger Muslims in the Cambridge area and from Turkish Muslims in Strobl have been predominately positive. "These projects are presented in a way to show that they can be used in real life, too," says Aksamija.  "That's why people like it. But it's still art and should not be seen as a solution to all needs of Muslims in diaspora, but rather as a question about their needs, as well as about the flexibility of Islam and the concept of a mosque."

"Our Mosques are Us"

After receiving her master's degree in architecture at Princeton in 2004, Aksamija entered the Aga Khan Program at MIT (AKPIA@MIT) - within the History, Theory, and Criticism of Art and Architecture Program - where she is currently pursuing her Ph.D. The AKPIA@MIT was established in 1979 and has a counterpart at Harvard University , both supported by an endowment from His Highness The Aga Khan . AKPIA@MIT is committed to the study of Islamic architecture, urbanism, visual culture, and conservation, with an emphasis on promoting the visibility of pan-Islamic cultural heritage.

Awarded a Charlotte W. Newcombe Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, Aksamija is conducting research for her dissertation entitled "Our Mosques are US: Rewriting National History of Bosnia-Herzegovina through Religious Architecture," starting with the 15th century and the first appearance of Islam in the Balkans during the Ottoman conquest. Aksamija is looking at the different points in history that have defined the architecture of contemporary mosques, as well as the evolution of the meaning of the mosque and how cultural memory and identity were erased and reinvented after mosques were destroyed in the Balkan War.  The Islamic community says 618 mosques were destroyed in the war, 90 of them in the Banja Luka area, the second largest city in Bosnia and Herzegovina.1

"As someone who has been affected by the war and who has also had the privilege to study at this elite university [MIT], I felt it was my obligation to give back something that I learned here and give my contribution to society in this way," says Aksamija who said she struggled with the direction of her Ph.D. dissertation topic - whether she should stay as a conceptual designer and continue working with the Generic Mosque concepts, or go further into becoming an architectural historian. But, as she reminds herself, she is not bound to one purpose but, like the mosque, will continue to have a multiplicity of functions, walking the lines between art, activism, and architecture.


This article is based on an interview conducted by the author, Juliet M. Beverly, with Azra Aksamija, a Ph.D. candidate in the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture in the School of Architecture & Planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

1. "Bosnia court annuls ruling on burnt mosques pay-out." 6 November 2009.
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AKPIA@MIT.  < > (10 December 2009).

Aksamija, Azra. "Echo of Islam in the West: Reactions to the Wearable Mosque." < > (10 December 2009).

"Azra Aksamija" < > (10 December 2009).

"Bosnia and Herzegovina." < > (13 December 2009).

"Islamic Doctrine - Islam Beliefs." < > (13 December 2009).

"Islam: Empire of Faith." < > (13 December 2009).